A LITTLE LOVE IN BIG MANHATTAN by Ruth R. Wisse Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Illustrated. 279 pp. $25 THE SKIN by Curzio Malaparte Translated from the Italian by David Moore Marlboro, Vt.: Marlboro Press 344 pp. $12.95 paperback `A Little Love in Big Manhattan'' is a charming book that contrasts the lives and works of two poets who came to New York as immigrants early in this century. Both wrote in their native Yiddish, but each took a very different approach to poetry and the literary life. Pursuing a goal rare for Yiddish writers of his time, Mani Leib (1883-1953) struggled to find beauty in his impoverished surroundings and to use Yiddish as a means of lyrical expressiveness. As can be seen from the Yiddish transliterations and English translations of his poems in this book, he succeeded quite wonderfully. Moishe Halpern (1886-1932) wrote sardonic, harshly realistic poems attuned to the jagged rhythms of modern urban life. (``A Little Love in Big Manhattan'' comes from one of his poems.)
Ironically, it was Halpern who pursued the life of a literary man; Leib spent most of his days working as a shoemaker. ``Halpern continued to project the image of the poet, while Mani Leib at his sewing machine felt less and less able to keep his poetry alive,'' notes Wisse.
By contrasting the two, Wisse demonstrates the range of Yiddish immigrant literature and points up distinctive features that would otherwise have been difficult to convey in translation. She also provides a good picture of the general state of Yiddish literature in this period.
This flowering of Yiddish writing was brief. By the next generation, English had replaced Yiddish as the spoken and literary language of this immigrant group.
``The Skin,'' published in Italy in 1949 as ``La Pelle,'' rings bizarre and richly elaborate variations on the theme of the liberation of Naples from 1943 to 1945.
Like the author's earlier ``Kaputt,'' it is narrated by Malaparte and presented as an account of his experiences, yet it is designed to challenge our credulity and confound our certainties. ``Kaputt'' was set in Eastern Europe at the time of the German invasion. One character in ``The Skin'' accuses Malaparte of having invented - or at least, embellished - the experiences described in ``Kaputt.'' The line between fact and fiction, perception and imagination, is not always easy to draw. Malaparte relishes the way one realm flows into the other.
In ``The Skin,'' Malaparte becomes friends with a likable American officer named Jack. The contrast between the optimism, rationality, good-heartedness, and innocence of the American liberators and the pessimism, irrationality, and anxiety of the darkly experienced Neapolitans is emphasized in episode after episode. Yet in each scene, the values shift meaning. American innocence appears, by turns, wholesome or shallow, generous or smug. Neapolitan experience is linked at one point with a cynical, pre-Christian amorality and the mysterious evils that boiled up in Nazism, but at another, with Christian forbearance and self-sacrifice.
Each chapter is a kind of allegorical set piece, complete with scenic backdrop, splendidly visualized description, provocative dialogue, and a shocking denouement. The cumulative effect is a brilliant, devastating, yet curiously tender portrait of liberated Naples which the author implicitly sets beside Tasso's heroic saga ``Gerusalemme liberata.'' Malaparte's Naples is a brave new world where cowardice and courage seem to blend into each other in the stampede to save one's skin instead of one's soul.
Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.